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Book review: Listening for God in Torah and Creation: A weekly encounter with conscience and soul by Jonathan Wittenberg

08 December 2023

The emphasis is moral, says Richard Harries

RABBI Jonathan Wittenberg is one of the UK’s most respected rabbis. He belongs to the Masorti branch of Judaism, which is traditional in its worship but accepts the results of modern biblical study. This book is a substantial collection of his sermons, based on the weekly Torah portion. They are well written, readable, and imbued with compassion, and express a strong moral imperative. Christians can profitably use the book for daily reading and reflection. In doing so, not only will they themselves gain insights: they will develop a greater understanding of how a Jewish community is shaped and formed.

In these sermons, all the focus is on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, allegedly given by Moses. A portion of this has to be read every week, but the exposition might just focus on one tiny detail of the text. From a Christian point of view, what is noticeable is that, apart from an occasional reference to a psalm, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets and wisdom literature, what Jews call the writings, are not referred to.

Another difference is acceptance of endless discussion about the meaning of a text or word. Discussion and potential disagreement are of the essence of Judaism, and different rabbis are quoted to support different points of view. So, although the revelation to Moses is definitive, its interpretation is part of a multi-voiced tradition and remains very open.

Wittenberg draws on all the different strands of Judaism, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the great expositors of the early Middle Ages, and the Kabbalist mystical tradition, as well as some modern teachers. It is a rich inheritance, which uses to the full. There is no discussion of what God might or might not be up to — in other words, no theology; for all the stress is on what we human beings ought to be doing. What is said is marked by realism, and, though deeply felt, is without sentimentality. All this brings out how Judaism has developed in a way that is distinctive and different from Christianity — but also, as expounded by Jonathan Wittenberg, how we can learn from it.

One feature of these reflections which sets them apart from many others is the inspiration that Wittenberg finds in the natural world, and hence the title of the book, which refers to listening for God not just in Torah, but in “creation”.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is
Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Queen Elizabeth II (SPCK, 2023).

Listening for God in Torah and Creation: A weekly encounter with conscience and soul
Jonathan Wittenberg
Hodder & Stoughton £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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